PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a 10-year, 35-billion euro ($46.2 billion) project on Wednesday to transform Paris into a green metropolis.
At the heart of the plan is a 130-kilometre automatic metro line looping around the city, linking a series of new economic and technology centers and more flexible planning laws that would allow as many as 70,000 new housing units a year.
The "Greater Paris" project has been billed as one of the biggest redevelopments of the French capital since the 19th century planning chief Baron Haussmann reshaped the center into today's city of broad boulevards.
"What I'm proposing is certainly ambitious and difficult," Sarkozy said in a speech. "It's about preparing for the future."
Sarkozy said the economic crisis was no reason to delay a project that he said would take a decade to complete. He said work should begin by 2012, the year in which his current presidential mandate ends.
"I think the answer to the crisis is great projects. France will only emerge from it if we have great projects," he said.
Sarkozy's call for a bold renewal of the capital is in the tradition of past presidents such as Georges Pompidou or Francois Mitterrand who left their mark with buildings such as the Pompidou Center or the Louvre's now-famous glass pyramid.
The "Greater Paris" project, based around proposals from 10 French and international design teams, is intended to bind the city and its surrounding region with an energy-efficient transport and building infrastructure.
The Ile de France region, with a population of some 12 million, accounts for nearly one third of France's gross domestic product but its development has been hampered by the stark divide between the city of Paris and the outlying suburbs.
Confined within the "peripherique" ring road, the city of Paris has just over 2 million inhabitants, compared with about 7.5 million in Greater London, and pressure to merge with the neighboring suburban areas has grown steadily.
Away from the beautiful city center, beloved of tourists and protected by a rigid building code, the suburban region or "banlieue," has traditionally suffered.
While most of it is by no means as grim as the housing estates that spawned the violent urban riots of 2005, disjointed transport links and a web of competing political authorities have left it handicapped compared with central Paris.
The designs submitted included some eye-catching ideas, including huge terraces, planted with greenery and suspended from towerblocks and a gleaming white monorail.
But the broader aim is both more everyday and more ambitious, said Paola Vigano, an Italian architect who presented a proposal with her partner Bernardo Secchi.
Revitalizing former industrial sites that stretch along the Seine river, creating good bus and tram links and overcoming the distinction between Paris and the suburbs will be key, she said.
"There's this focus on the big glass towers but it's not that at all," she said. "It's about weaving the whole of the city closer together."